There’s a lot of skepticism swirling around the metaverse, and for good reason: many current forecasts could turn out to be false, and even the most prescient futurists can’t predict everything. But brands shouldn’t wait to begin thinking about the metaverse just because it’s unpredictable.
If you see media pundits, news analysts, marketers, tech giants, celebrities and influencers commenting on a chariot race outside a glue factory, remember that the horses are dead.
Yet with so many wagons painted “METAVERSE OR BUST,” the meta-race is in full stride—even if it’s largely fueled by hype. But is that really a bad thing? And what is actually fueling all the hype?
Consensus defines the metaverse with a very broad brush. Most envision it as a future-forward, fully connected, three-dimensional visualization of the internet. Some op-eds extol the virtue of an egalitarian, decentralized, web3 world built on the blockchain (where your data is protected from big business, of course). Others see it as a confluence of multiple technologies—VR, AR, MR (aka XR) and gaming engines—where audiences, or avatars, can move through a multiverse of worlds as easily as surfing the web.
Similarly muddy, or “squishy,” as described by CNET’s Andrew Moorse and Scott Stein (in The metaverse is just getting started: Here’s what you need to know), the implications of what the metaverse will become run the gamut. Questions abound, both dystopian to utopian.
Will the metaverse mean less time outside, in nature, building community or connecting face-to-face, in person? Or will it remove real-world geographical constraints and capacity limitations, lowering cost and carbon footprint of events and experiences? Will avatar anonymity increase the internet’s already toxic levels of trolling, sexual harassment, malfeasance and fraud? Or will it enable mobility to those with physical disabilities, giving people more freedom to explore, engage and interact? Will it remove biases, conscious or unconscious, or make them worse?
The possibilities on either extreme are endless.
But regardless of what anyone thinks it is—or what it can do—the metaverse is so impossibly difficult to define because it doesn’t actually exist. Not yet anyway. The metaverse is aspirational. This is not Tron, the Grid has yet to be built. There’s no Oasis like the one in Ready Player One. We are at the start of the start, where opportunity, possibility and imagination collide. This is precisely the reason for all the hype: anything is possible.
Sell the Sizzle
As such, newsrooms churn out prophecies. Gartner predicts 25% of people will spend at least one hour per day in the metaverse by 2026. According to The Future Today Institute in New York City, by 2030, others “will live the majority of their waking hours ‘jacked in’” (New York Post). This kind of sensational coverage makes marketers salivate—it’s the sound of sales. As the saying goes, “sell the sizzle, not the steak.”
While the metaverse is but a raw tot of tech trend (rapidly accelerated thanks to an ongoing pandemic), it isn’t all squishy. The focus on XR and 3D gaming engines has also set in motion some very tangible initiatives, where according to Accenture Interactive’s 2022 Fjord Trends 2022 Report, “brand owners will establish their own spaces within the metaverse, or look to Big Tech to create metaverse-as-a-service platforms they can engage with.”
Virtual worlds offer real benefits for engagement. From digitally twinning real locations, to building bespoke new worlds, to inspiring immersive, interactive and verisimilar experiences—these (meta)worlds matter. Consumers have always wanted exclusive, one-of-a-kind experiences, and now those experiences exist in completely new virtual, experiential formats. Hungry brands are realizing what AAA game studios have known for years: there’s a ton of money on the table, ripe for the taking.
Start the Start
Like any other marketing channel, metaworlds live and die with content. It must be relevant (timely and audience-specific), compelling (fascinating and fun), and immersive (occupying interest and attention). The biggest difference with virtual content is that it exists within a three-dimensional world. It has to offer the same level of immediacy, interactivity and engagement that impels traffic to 2D sites. But it comes with a hefty new challenge for brands: creating rich 3D content and getting customers to explore an entirely new channel.
Regardless of application—eCommerce, event, activation, gamification, simulation, configuration, etc.—brands need to start now: (1) curating and digitizing assets, creating new 3D content, and building a branded world that has room to grow. This could be a 24/7 showroom where consumers can try on products and transact; it could be a concert or experience on a photorealistic replica of the Titanic or Atlantis.
Content, programming and positioning are more important than ever. This is doubly true with all the hype surrounding the metaverse, and the myriad skeptics (like PC Gamer’s Fenlon) eager to deflate the buzz by declaring, “The Metaverse is bullshit.”
Whatever it is, it’s the content and immersion that make the metaverse, or metaworlds, so valuable. The only limit to what virtual worlds can accomplish is up to the imagination, the execution and the desired outcome. Success starts with purpose. If the metaverse is marketing, then brands have an enormous opportunity to connect with fans like never before. It’s all a matter of perspective. Like Jedi Master Obi-Wan told young Luke, “…many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”
Josh Rush is CEO at Surreal Events.